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Saisons Pt 4: Big Names

For this week’s saison-tasting session, we decided to tackle two beers from breweries with heavy reputations: BrewDog and Burning Sky.

We were sent both as samples by the breweries but…

  • BrewDog Electric India — 5.2% ABV, 330ml, £1.80 at their online store (when it’s in stock).
  • Burning Sky Saison à la Provision — 6.7%, 330ml, at, e.g., Beer Gonzo for £3.95. (Also available in 750ml corked bottles.)

We had vague recollections of trying BrewDog’s saison last year, on keg at their Camden bar, and finding it ‘quite good’. The flame-coloured label and customarily hyperbolic copy suggest that it ought to have been more memorable:

An unholy union between a Belgian Saison and an India Pale Ale… A lightning bolt of awesome that resuscitates your tastebuds… Electric India is a hoppy saison brewed with lashings of heather honey, crushed black pepper corns and enthusiastically hopped with mountains of Amarillo and Nelson Sauvin.

Unholy! Lightning bolts! Lashings! Mountains! Boy howdy!

It poured with a glacial, almost spoonable head of foam, just a touch hazy, and smelled remarkably like Westmalle Tripel, so top marks for a convincingly Belgian first impression.

BrewDog Electric India in the glass.On tasting, there was an immediate reminder of last week’s guest star: rhubarb. A result of the power of suggestion, perhaps, or maybe the other way round — the yeast recalls rhubarb which is what gives brewers the idea to add it to saison? It actually contains black pepper but, again, we suspect the yeast is at least equally responsible for a tingling, spicy note. As it warmed up, more bitterness emerged, as did some of the promised tropical fruit — something like that dried pineapple/papaya/coconut mix people sprinkle on their breakfast bran.

This is not a radical or crazy beer, despite the label’s claims — it tastes clean and classical with just enough quirkiness to keep things interesting, and the relatively low ABV (Saison Dupon is 6.5%) puts it on the sessionable/refreshing end of the scale. It’s a definite contender for our list of recommended UK saisons, especially considering the price, and makes it through to the final taste-off.

* * *

The challenge with Burning Sky Saison à la Provision is to taste the beer itself rather than the hype, but it’s difficult: when we announced this project, lots of people suggested we had to try it, and brewer Mark Tranter, formerly of Dark Star, is one of a handful of celebrity names in British beer, and the winner of last year’s British Guild of Beer Writers brewing award.

On pouring, before we even had chance to look at it, we were assailed by a ripe Brettanomyces aroma — musty, spicy, faintly cheesy. Despite our best efforts, it was impossible to pour clear, or even hazy: let’s call the result ‘light cloud cover’.

Burning Sky Saison a la Provision in the glass.The first taste reminded us of our earliest efforts to understand saison: where exactly does gueuze begin and saison end? This beer is distinctly sour, though not as fiercely challenging as some. (It might make a good introduction to sour beer for the nervous.) If it was described as gueuze on the label, we certainly wouldn’t argue. Really, it’s three-in-one all-purpose-Belgian — the funk of Orval, the tartness of Cantillon, and an homage to the farmhouse tradition. Or, to put that another way, if Irn Bru is made in Scotland from girders, this tastes as if it’s made in Belgium from barn beams.

On balance, we found just a touch too rustic and raw for our tastes, and there was a distracting brown sugar, toffee note that jarred throughout. After some debate (we bickered, readers, and one of us is ‘in no hurry to drink it again soon’) we decided to put it through to the final because it’s a grown-up, fascinating, complex beer that we suspect will show new facets on a different day.

7 replies on “Saisons Pt 4: Big Names”

we bickered, readers

Did one of you say “complex shmomplex, if it’s got that many rough edges it looks like they just haven’t got it right yet – & they’re not going to bother now because people are buying the ‘farmhouse’ hype”? I think I might agree with that person. (Might be terrific, of course.)

Interesting result for the BD – a well-made, unpretentious, easy-drinking beer at a competitive price. Just what they’re famous for, eh?

“Interesting result for the BD – a well-made, unpretentious, easy-drinking beer at a competitive price. Just what they’re famous for, eh?”

But actually I think that IS what brewdog are famous for – at least compared to the majority of craft brewers. Their success is entirely down to their skilful straddling of the line between being interesting and innovative enough to get people’s attention, but also extremely reasonably well priced and generally quite accessible and professionally done.

Yes, I take my hat off to them. Shifting all that Punk (among other things), and getting quality control right, while still having a counter-cultural image and making out that their beers are so extreme they’d be turned away from Borefts – it’s quite a trick.

I think the crux of it is essentially having two Brewdogs – the one that produce a couple of reliable, tasty, relatively easy-drinking supermarket pale ales that are always available and easily recognizable even to a casual punter, and the other that produces some genuinely full-on stuff that either gets them column inches or ratebeer scores or both. At a guess, the former bankrolls the latter and the latter essentially works as marketing for the former. Like, you know they’re that crazy-cool brewery with the amazing extreme beers, but you can be part of that coolness without having to trawl through obscure bottle shops and remember which of the massively pricey, palate-wrecking, 18% ABV quadruple-IPAs is meant to be the best one.

I think that’s the thing – and being a regular punter and not some crafty beer ticker type, I’m only really interested in the first Brewdog.
They make for a good half-way house between everyday and extreme – a bit more interesting than your regulation cask ales and lagers, but not as, err, palate-challenging or hideously expensive as the really “craft” stuff you get.

It doesn’t surprise me at all that their saison made it through to the final. No matter what beer category you might care to pick, there’s probably a very professional and tasty brewdog version.

I wonder if Brewdog, in the wake of the CAMRA motion on keykeg, will now decide to re-enter the cask conditioned market. The cask from Brewdog has reached legendary status so a premium plus price is achievable for them. Or is the brewery no longer capable of handling cask?

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